Updated at 11am to include comments from Qatar’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Updated at 12:15pm to include comments from the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy.
A week before FIFA elects its next president, rights groups have stepped up calls on football’s governing body to pressure Qatar into protecting its expat workforce from abuse.
In a new report released this morning, Amnesty International said FIFA needs to prioritize the rights of migrant workers as preparations for the 2022 World Cup accelerate:
“FIFA has a clear responsibility to act in the face of the evidence of labour exploitation, knowing that it is migrant construction workers and migrant service industry workers who are on the frontline in delivering the World Cup experience in Qatar,” the human rights organization said.
However, Dutch Football Association president Michael van Praag is the only candidate to have come close to calling for reforms in Qatar, and
is rumored to be poised to pull out of the race as early as today withdrew his candidacy today.
Similarly, Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan – a FIFA vice-president and one of Blatter’s challengers – has also supported Qatar:
“There is evidence that progress is being made in Qatar with the new laws that … are now being implemented,” he previously told the Associated Press. “I believe that the Emir of Qatar is committed to delivering the positive social change and improvements to conditions for workers that the international community and FIFA are demanding.”
The fourth contender, retired Portuguese footballer Luís Figo, has said there should be “zero tolerance” for corruption as well as human rights and labor violations without naming any specific countries, according to Amnesty International.
Spotlight on sponsors
For the past several years, Qatar has been widely criticized for failing to protect its blue-collar workforce from abuse at the hands of their sponsors.
Frequently raised issues include unsafe worksites, unsanitary accommodations, non-payment of wages and illegal recruitment fees.
However, the companies building the actual World Cup stadiums and training facilities are required to provide their employees with a minimum standard of working and living conditions.
Human rights advocates have welcomed these requirements, but note they only apply to a fraction of the country’s labor force, leaving those who are building Qatar’s new roads, highways and hotels still vulnerable to mistreatment.
With none of FIFA’s presidential candidates taking a hard line on Qatar, the Gulf country’s critics have also asked World Cup sponsors to speak out.
This week, Visa said in a statement that it had raised the issue with FIFA:
“We continue to be troubled by the reports coming out of Qatar related to the World Cup and migrant worker conditions. We have expressed our grave concern to FIFA and urge them to take all necessary actions to work with the appropriate authorities and organizations to remedy this situation and ensure the health and safety of all involved.”
Previously, when World Cup sponsors expressed concerns about the 2022 tournament, the questions were largely limited to allegations of corruption surrounding the bidding process.
The impact of outside criticism and public pressure on Qatar remains unclear.
Last May, authorities here pledged to reform the controversial kafala sponsorship system that has been widely blamed for enabling the abuses of expats by unscrupulous employers. But no timeline for the changes were set.
Most recently, Qatar’s Labor Minister said he’s “90 percent” sure that reforms would be introduced by the end of this year.
In today’s report, Amnesty International said the country has made no significant progress in protecting the human rights of its foreign workers since the 2014 press conference.
“The pledges Qatar made last year are at serious risk of being dismissed as a mere public relations stunt to ensure the Gulf state can cling on to the 2022 World Cup,” Amnesty researcher Mustafa Qadri said in a statement.
Even in areas where Qatar claims to have made progress, Amnesty said nothing has actually changed.
For example, the human rights group noted that employers have been given six months to start complying with a law approved in February that requires them to pay their employees via bank transfer.
That deadline can be extended at the discretion of the labor minister. The measure is intended to make it easier for expats and the government to scrutinize and document any late or non-existing payments.
Amnesty also noted that Qatar has fallen short of its goal to employ 300 labor inspectors by the end of 2014, up from some 150 in mid-2013.
In a statement released Thursday morning, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MOLSA) said it disagreed with several of Amnesty’s claims and said that “significant changes have been made over the last year to improve the rights and conditions of expatriate workers.”
In addition to citing the new electronic wage payment requirements and multilingual kiosks for expats to lodge complaints, MOLSA said it now employs 294 labor inspectors and expects the number to reach 400 by year-end.
The ministry also said it “has continued to clamp down on companies and recruitment offices breaking our laws with fines and penalties.”
Amnesty also argued that some Nepali workers in Qatar faced difficulty obtaining permission from their employers to return home following last month’s devastating earthquake.
For its part, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy – which is overseeing the construction of Qatar’s World Cup stadiums and training facilities – said the organization and its contractors “quickly came to the aid of workers” affected by the earthquake:
“Funds were raised by (Supreme Committee) staff to help the 500 Nepalese workers spread across our different projects and every request by Nepali workers on (Supreme Committee) projects to return home in the aftermath of the earthquakes has been approved, with more than 60 workers having their airfare covered by the relevant contractor.”
Nevertheless, Amnesty said that in the big picture, its hopes that the country would make concrete improvements to the living and working conditions of low-income expats are fading fast.
“We are one year closer to Qatar’s 2022 World Cup – time for changes to be implemented is running out,” Qadri said.
Here’s a full copy of Amnesty’s report: